By Alyana Stickles | September 20, 2021
It took the signature of a single man to strip nearly 14 million women of their rights of choice, privacy, and basic medical freedoms in the state of Texas. The Texas Heartbeat Act, which formerly came into effect on Sept. 1, 2021, under the jurisdiction of Gov. Greg Abbott, bars a woman’s right to abortion after cardiac activity is first detected, around six weeks after conception, and relies primarily on the enforcement of the law through private civil lawsuits rather than government direction, marking an unusual practice of civilians enforcing the law rather than the state itself.
While there are many holes within the act of legislation, including exceptions for victims of rape and/or incest and pregnancies involving complications that risk the medical integrity of the mother and/or the unborn child, one thing has remained crystal clear: women’s access to reproductive healthcare has been compromised and reformatted to mere political ideation.
A woman’s access to abortion across the nation has been the center of much political and moral strife for decades, with the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) deciding that the Constitution upholds a woman’s liberty to have an abortion without excessive government restriction, establishing the right of privacy. In recent years, many conservative states, such as Texas, have increasingly found loopholes or limitations to this decision.
Julie Novkov, a political science and women’s studies professor at the university, commented on the idea of politically regulating pregnancy. She said that “the political tactic for years has been to shift the moment in pregnancy at which strict regulation becomes possible. In Roe, that line was drawn at viability. Post-Roe legal developments have allowed a variety of restrictions to go into place significantly earlier.”
The general time limit of the law has become one of the main problematic illuminations of the bill since a period of six weeks means that a woman only has around two weeks after a late menstrual cycle (which can be the product of various simple reasons such as stress and hormonal imbalances) to schedule and receive an abortion in a definitive legal manner. The time constraint proves to be controversial since it is not uncommon for women’s menstrual cycles to deviate slightly from an otherwise normal schedule, making a late cycle an unlikely source to be seriously investigated by women.
The Heartbeat Act also fails to include the issue of pregnancies that are the product of sexual assault and incestuous cases. Professor Novkov expressed the concerns that will arise with the legislation’s lack of exceptions, and stated that “The law’s failure to except cases of pregnancy resulting from sexual assault and/or incest is particularly problematic, because the trauma associated with such an incident may make it more difficult for a pregnant person to come to terms with the reality of pregnancy, making it more likely that the time limit will be an issue.”
In 2019, Texas reported a figure of more sexual assault cases than the overall national average (more than 14,000 reported cases), and this trend has continued in recent years, with a reported 18,000 rapes occurring in Texas during 2020. As a direct result, there has been a mass backlog of rape kits that are currently waiting to be tested (approximately 5,000) despite Gov. Abbot’s very public signing of a Bill in 2019 with the intent to prioritize forensic processing of these kits as well as expanding the general public’s access to sexual assault nurse examiners.
The Heartbeat Act also has the potential to serve as a foundation for other extreme legislation acts and could very well serve as a model for future political endeavors. “Unless federal courts are able to take action soon, this model might prove attractive for many state legislatures that want to undertake policy agendas on both the right and the left that don’t align with current constitutional standards,” said Professor Novkov.
This piece of legislation is also unique in the sense of it relying on the private civil pursuits of citizens against institutions that provide abortions rather than government regulation, meaning that women’s reproductive/sexual clinics such as Planned Parenthood are at risk of being shut down, eliminating women’s access to sexual and reproductive health education, management, and treatments.
“Many states including Texas, could do far better in changing their policies on what counts as a cleared case of sexual assault. Many years ago, Kristen Luker wrote a wonderful book on abortion politics in which she argued that fights over abortion are often proxy fights over the proper role of women in society. States that prioritize restricting abortion over addressing sexual assault illustrate a particular worldview about women in society,” remarked Professor Novkov.
In response to Texas’ passed abortion ban, the leaders of Planned Parenthood in the Capital Region are currently in the process of organizing a rally at the Capitol buildings on Oct. 2, 2021, and actively encourage anyone to be in attendance.